On Friday morning, this after a crazed human being killed 17 innocent children and adults at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Wednesday, I sat in a room with Sheriff Jim Hammond and members of his command staff and asked what everyone us want to know: “What do we do?”
Gino Bennett, the sage guiding force, sat beside me and he told the room, “The time to ‘prevent’ is over … now it is time to prepare.” Chief Branum added, “We must prepare right now.”
How chilling is that? Today we know it is going to happen, these school massacres. We’ve had 18 school shootings this year and that doesn’t count two kids shot Friday afternoon in Kentucky. My God, it is mid-February and America is bleeds every week. What do we do? We can’t sit and wait. It is here. It is now. And I am sitting with the sheriff, his top deputy Allen Branum, and his chief of staff Gino Bennett and I am begging all three,” What’s our course of action? What do we do when it happens here?
Jim Hammond, who I am absolutely satisfied the best and most able sheriff we’ve ever had, met immediately after Wednesday’s massacre with County Mayor Jim Coppinger. Both have made their lives as ‘first responders.’ They are just as shocked as we are, both the want “to fight, be ‘pro-active,’ we will wait no longer. One hundred years ago, the biggest threat to children was fires at school,” said the sheriff. “With fire drills, better school construction, constant diligence and a total commitment by everyone, school fires have been eradicated. We can stop shootings … but it is going to take the same commitment.”
So, to cut to the chase, I combed the minds of our top three experts and here is the way we respond to the latest Valentine’s Day massacre:
“THE KIDS KNOW WHO THE TROUBLE MAKERS ARE.”
No. 1 – SCHOOL COUNSELLORS -- “You know the best way to identify a troubled student? The others kids in school know exactly who they are,” said Hammond. “Our Dept. of Education must install counsellors in schools immediately to help all our kids cope with their struggles and children will respond better to a teacher than a school resource officer (SRO). We must address the problems these children bring to school and beg for help how they should handle them.
“Right now we have SROs at 28 schools in the county but we have 50 more schools where we don’t have a legitimate officer. We no longer have a choice. The Mayor and I agree this is critical but, more importantly, we have to have a way to listen to our students and meet them where they are. Every school must have a councilor immediately.”
“That said, it will take until August to hire and train these people. But we have to get started right now.”
“WE HAVE TO TRAIN AND ARM MEMBERS OF THE FACULTY.”
No. 2 – TEACHERS WITH GUNS – Oh gasp, horror-horror but every one of Sheriff Hammond’s staff agrees the best way to answer a ‘bad gun’ is with a ‘good gun.’ “People say just throw something at shooter but – think! -- that will get you shot faster than anything,” the sheriff said.
“What we must do is identify capable staff members and carefully teach faculty members to voluntarily carry firearms. Some may say that’s insane – we’ve got 16 dead kids in Florida to prove otherwise,” he said in a candid way. “It takes an 8-hour course to qualify for a state ‘carry’ permit.
“In the Florida massacre a coach was killed shielding children from bullets. He wasn’t allowed to carry a gun. What if he had been armed?” asked the sheriff. “I know several sheriffs who are teaching faculty members right now to carry guns. These teachers volunteer to do it and they are each vetted by law enforcement and the Dept. of Education.
“We already have teachers who have personal permits but it is against state law for anyone – including law enforcement -- to have a gun inside a school,” Hammond explained.
“We are constantly training our officers so training teachers isn’t difficult. But when they got their teaching certificates, these teachers weren’t told: ‘Get the children behind you … get those kids behind your gun and the shooter will be less likely to chase them … the students need to know the teacher has a gun. That’s a huge security issue for child. They need to know we’ll keep you safe.”
The sheriff’s department believes for a faculty member to carry a weapon in school it will take a 40-hour course, one week in the summer, for us to properly teach a football coach or an English teacher the most effective way to protect students that are being attacked.
“There is a science to de-escalating tension, to have an escape route when a shooter is confronted by responding fire, but we should have several totally-volunteer faculty members able to respond. No, I don’t like armed teachers any more than they are asked to carry guns,” the sheriff interrupted himself, “but I don’t have a choice anymore … we’ve got to have an immediate response to a crisis, especially any that involve defenseless children.”
“THIS IS GOING TO BE FOCUSED ON EVERY CHILD IN HAMILTON COUNTY.”
What about the private schools in the county? “No school can be exempt because mental illness isn’t selective,” said the sheriff. “We believe we are responsible for the welfare of every child and public-private have the same threats. Some of our private schools have bigger campuses which is a problem. They use private security in some cases but I personally feel their faculty members can be a great asset.
“In the weeks ahead we’ll invite all schools to share in our effort but I would really be surprised if our private and parochial schools opt not to be actively involved. I can’t imagine parents not insisting on it.”
“Right now we have SROs at the high schools and middle schools. Up until now we haven’t had near the resources to put an SRO at the elementary schools but their needs aren’t as great as the upper-grade schools where we need a fully-credentialed officer. I believe the County Commission will insist we move forward there and I know Mayor Coppinger feels we need to have a larger presence in overall protection.”
Would it make sense to have teacher fire-arm training this spring, taking several teachers out of classroom as early as next month? “Whatever it takes. The Hamilton County Sheriff’s Department will teach night classes, all day Sunday … we will do anything … and can do anything … to keep our children safe.”
“Mayor Coppinger is already reaching out to Homeland Security and I’ve been in contact with other sheriffs. This can wait no longer. We are on it.”
“WE’RE DOING AN ASSESSMENT AT SIGNAL MOUNTAIN RIGHT NOW.”
No. 3 – AN ESCAPE PLAN – “We could institute a crisis plan at every school in Hamilton County within two weeks. Yes, we would have to hustle but we could do it and suddenly this is critical. Just like a fire drill, our students should be taught and should know an immediate reaction to any threat. They should be assured teachers will be right there with them and that the plan we’ll devise is what we believe will keep them safe,” the sheriff said.
To illustrate, Bennett said a team was at Signal Mountain Friday morning to evaluate the entrances and exits of the school building. “We know we’ll have just one entrance point at every schools and hopefully use metal detectors, and other devices to screen people. We’ll step up security and surveillance immediately but we’ll also have exit strategy, identification instructions for faculty with first responders … there is a lot to do but we can get started right now.”
An easy step is a more rigorous entrance check. “It ought to be nearly impossible for some unauthorized person to get access into a school. Our escape plan should have multiple exit routes and once we drill our students that will have a calming effect.
A BLUE-RIBBON SECURITY COMMITTEE
Sheriff Hammond and his command team are meeting constantly, analyzing data and searching for answers. The sheriff’s son – Jim – has learned that every shooter this year had a history of psychotropic drug use which isn’t surprising. Just like guns, drugs aren’t the problem. It is the guy who quit taking them.
“The Mayor and I are talking about creating an urgent committee including the schools, both the sheriff and the Chattanooga police, Homeland security, major businesses, foundations, and any other possible piece of the puzzle because this is urgent. We agree this is a very real threat to communities across our nation. The time has come for forget prevention and focus on being prepared for anything. That’s what is happening in America today … right now.”
“What each school must do is find out which students are being medicated. There is absolutely nothing wrong with proper medication and due vigilance but we’ve got a jail full of people who got off their medicines and acted out. Maybe a school counsellor could detect a problem arising and stop it from happening,” the sheriff reasoned. “I know the child would benefit. So would the parents. So would the school. So would the other students. So would our community. So would our country.
“This is what we’re after.”
It must happen now. Prepare … it’s too late to prevent.
February 17, 2018